Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Should we optimize ourselves for search engines?

December 5, 2009General

One of my points in The Numerati is that in a world increasingly managed by machines, we must "optimize" ourselves so that they find and appreciate us. We need them to give us high rankings as workers, prospective dates, etc. But now the fracas between Rupert Murdoch and Google raises questions about that approach. Murdoch, in effect, says that the traffic coming from search engines is low quality--and not worth attracting.

I think this may be just a negotiating position. Still, I came across this interesting speech by The Daily Mirror's Matt Kelly. (ex Matthew Ingram). He argues against search engine optimization, saying that it orients the product toward machine algorithms, and not the passions of readers. He talks about new Web sites in which the Mirror team has turned SEO dictates on their heads--taking the risk of appealing to humans while confusing machines.

Instead of a navigation that would perform well in Google - something like "music news", "celebrity news", "film news", "TV news" etc etc… - we decided to follow a more emotional methodology… "Gasp!", "Tee-hee", "Phwoar"... I hope the translators are able to cope with making sense of this - but phrases that better reflect the experience we hope our users will enjoy when they come to 3am. To be shocked, amused, titillated…

Yes, it's different. And it means the audience may grow more slowly. But it will grow meaningfully. Because its audience will care.

Interesting. Of course, if papers like the Mirror can attract readers using rubiques like "Phwoar" and "Tee-hee," the scientists at search engines will have to tweak their algorithms to recognize those words themselves. In that scenario, the word people lead and the Numerati follow. It's not something I'd bet on, at least in the short term.

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